It’s difficult to imagine US higher education getting worse than this

There’s an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today, “Go Ahead and Drop My Course,” from Daniel Chambliss, a sociology professor at Hamilton College, a liberal arts college in New York.

In the piece, Chambliss argues that professors should respect students who lack all motivation whatsoever to study or develop some proficiency in a subject. Sure, they are paying an enormous amount of money to attend college – usually financed through long-term debt that several Democratic candidates for president now want federal taxpayers to absorb – but he says it’s not a moral shortcoming if they simply don’t give a fuck about getting an education in exchange for all that money:

The best teaching advice I ever received came from a world-class swimming coach. It was 30 years ago. I was head coach of a local swim team and was working with a 12-year-old girl who had enormous talent, beautiful technique and a gift for moving effortlessly through the water. I was pushing her hard to make the Eastern U.S. championships, but she didn’t seem to care. I used every trick I knew. Nothing would make her really try.

So I called my friend Larry Liebowitz, a wonderful coach I knew from my sociological research on Olympic gold medalists. I explained my problem and waited for his sympathy and suggestions. Larry surprised me. “Dan,” he said, “you want this more than she does.” I frowned, and realized he was right. Then he added the kicker: “You’ve got to realize, there’s nothing morally wrong with not wanting to swim.”

That stopped me dead in my tracks. I had always assumed that swimming wasn’t only important to me but uniquely valuable to anyone who hopped in the pool. Surely Larry felt the same way. Swimming had changed my own life for the better, and I wanted the kids on my team to get that benefit as well. Swimming was, I thought, universally good for people. They should want to do it. But Larry reminded me it’s only a sport, and its value depended on the individual.

Here’s a transformative message for coaches, parents and teachers: There’s nothing morally wrong with not wanting to work hard at something—even school. Or not caring about formal education. In fact, there’s nothing morally wrong with not liking school at all. Lots of people don’t like sociology (the subject I teach). Lot of people don’t want to go to college. They get through life just fine. And, yes, they’re perfectly good human beings.

Larry changed the way I think about education. It isn’t the only worthwhile thing for young people to be doing. When students come to me at midterm looking to drop my course, they’re typically embarrassed. They stammer out some apologies about how they really do like the course, they think I’m great, but they’ve taken on too much.

Since hearing Larry’s wisdom, I gently cut them off and sign the drop slip right away. Then, if they care to talk, I’m delighted to listen to their thoughts about the course, me or their other priorities in life.

I love sociology, and I believe in its value, just as I deeply believe in the value of liberal arts education. But when students don’t like sociology, I let them know that I’m not insulted. You can’t force motivation on a person; that door is locked from the inside. Students aren’t disrespecting me by not wanting to take my course. Nor are they passing judgment on my field or my college.

It is true that there are millions of Americans who have elected not to attend college (or even finish high school) and some of them have become quite prosperous (or at least sufficiently prosperous to lead a happy life) and made tremendous contributions to our communities. But there is a big difference between, say, going into a trade or focusing on becoming an artist, and simply not caring about what happens to you. One is making a life choice and the other is being lazy. And being lazy – especially being lazy on someone else’s dime, whether that someone else is your parents or federal taxpayers – is certainly a colossal moral failing.

I think a lot about the predicament of Millennials in our country, especially as that generation has propelled bona fide socialists into front-runner status in politics for the first time in American history. I know quite a few highly motivated and conventionally successful Millennials, but they are hardly representative of their generation. In fact, each and every one of them has a story about succeeding despite a plethora of negative influences in their social environment, whether that comes from parents who have not been able to raise them with any sense of how to flourish, or objectively awful K-12 and postsecondary educations that also provide students with no blueprint on how to flourish.

We have an entire generation of people who have been shut down so routinely in the “real world” because of the terrible things they have been taught to believe that they have given up on any ambition whatsoever. Now they follow around these senior citizen hippie pied pipers in politics because their pied pipers tell them that their lack of ambition is not inherently a bad thing, that our economy would ideally be organized to reward them for this attitude. That rewarding them for a lack of ambition is “social justice.” Carelessness has become utopia.

Liberal Baby Boomers have so thoroughly undermined our social institutions with their “I’m okay, you’re okay” nonsense that people like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are not even a source of cognitive dissonance. The youth in this country has heard “it’s okay not to care about flourishing” in their K-12 education, in college, in their Boomer parents’ liberal churches that portray Jesus as their favorite communist, on television and in the movies, in newspapers and magazines. It’s so pervasive for this generation that only a rare, radical, likely socially persecuted, free-thinker can buck the echo chamber and its litany of failure.

I think it is important that we acknowledge that this lost generation is not some accident, but that it was built. The economic failures of Millennials are a direct result of how absolutely freaking insane liberal Baby Boomer educators have been. Decades of having Baby Boomer educators preaching that managing your feelings is more important than developing actual skills have built this political moment. They have annihilated a lifetime of earning power for younger generations – I almost called them “kids,” as they retain a kid-like status despite the fact that many of them are approaching middle age. And if someone like Bernie Sanders is elected president, the hippies approaching their twilight years may have significantly undermined the entire social fabric of our country.

Our country must get back to a point where we teach children to value and seek excellence. That they should try their best at everything they do – regardless of whether they like it or not – and always submit their best work. We absolutely need to stop coddling teenagers and young adults into economic and personal worthlessness. Our education system must have some purpose beyond being a network of publicly funded sex clubs and purveyors of second infancies. That starts with telling kids that it’s not alright to be lazy.

10 thoughts on “It’s difficult to imagine US higher education getting worse than this

  1. Good piece. I am so scared of what our future holds, for all the very reasons you pointed out. No one wants to work for anything any more. They only want the things they can easily get. they have no ambition, they don;t want to work, they don;t want to push themselves and get out of their comfort zone, and this can only spell disaster for our country and for the world. It is very scary indeed. I wish I could jump start all these people into reality, but they just don’t care.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I tend to see culture as a pendulum that swings back-and-forth between extremes. We are at one extreme right now, but there are signs that we are swinging back. (The NFL trying to be aggressively normal for the Super Bowl last night is one of them.)

      That said, I don’t know what is going to change the trajectory of education in this country. In many ways, colleges and universities are operating a lot like Wall Street during the real estate bubble. They have trillions of dollars running through them now, most of it debt and not cash, and they are cranking out products that are dramatically overvalued. A kid with no skills but a quarter-million-dollar undergraduate degree and selling a McManision in Los Angeles to a janitor are both examples of liar loans. There will be no cash flow on the other end to justify the price.

      We probably will not cut these hyenas out of higher education until they either become powerfully repugnant in our culture or the economic incentive shifts through changes to policy. If we ever enact policy that pushes 100% of the costs on to taxpayers though, I can only imagine how insane college is going to get. Moral hazard at its worst.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I know a lot of people with kids who are on the fence about college now. Part of it is the understanding that an undergraduate degree for their kids is probably going to cost a million dollars by the time they are college-aged. At what point do you say, absolutely not. I think a lot about encouraging our daughter to go to college in another country. In Florida, at least, if you get top grades in high school and score well on the SAT, the state colleges are free. To me that says less about government investment in education and more about what a racket tuition is now.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. No, I did not misread it. You misread me. I am saying it is not okay to teach children *to have that attitude.* To be an educated adult, you have to be competent in a lot of fields that you might not enjoy studying. Lots of kids do not like math, but it’s not okay for them to quit the moment it gets hard or less easy to enjoy. That attitude is how you get a generation like Millennials.


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